Crayons or computers?

A critique of software for children, and a suggested solution.

Essay by Kaiser in FYI, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall 1994.

So many factors conspire against children using computers to dream or reflect at any meaningful depth that it is tempting to make the case for keeping them well away from this technology. But while most children’s software pales by comparison with crayons, puppets, and miniature figures, the computer holds tremendous promise to open up a child’s inner world rather than closing it down.

Children’s first exposure to computers usually comes from video games designed to hook their users with tight stimulus/response loops. Such feedback builds a tremendous excitement that has only itself as its goal (try playing Tetris to see how this works.) Children feel themselves to be in control of a game they can learn to dominate, but meanwhile all deeper thoughts of their own are crowded out of a mental space now busy making the split-second calculations needed to “survive” in the game.

Even in the field of educational software you can’t immediately escape behaviorist manipulations, for here the first push was to have computers quiz users, rewarding them for correct answers. This high-tech multiple-choice was dubbed “Computer-Assisted Instruction” (or CAI) but it soon got another name: “Drill and kill.” To make a bitter pill sweeter, designers started adding small incentives for users – a correct answer triggering a colorful animation or a little sprite saying, “Good job!” It was not long before designers packaged CAI exercises as part of a larger game format providing continuous incentives and rewards, and it was in this form (called “Edutainment”) that such programs as Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster came to dominate the educational software market. I cannot convey the sadness of watching children playing such programs over and over again for the faint thrill of the game’s feedback loop, long after the “educational content” has been memorized and exhausted.

The prospects are brighter elsewhere. Word processing, for instance, is an open-ended tool for children, letting them write expressively at a much earlier age than before. Since the result is legible, it lends itself to the desktop publishing efforts of many modern classrooms. Where I taught, the most popular books in the school library were books written by other students. How much better to see children working hard to communicate with their readers rather than to gain points from the computer!

But not all thoughts come verbally – children have always turned to dramatic play and to picture-making to delve more deeply into imaginary worlds. It is here that crayons, puppets, and miniature figures play so important a role. Programmers now labor to simulate such tools and toys on the computer, but with mixed results.

Let’s see if we can expose these limitations by looking carefully at computer paint programs. Such programs have evolved rapidly to allow users to paint the screen in any number of ways. In the late 1980’s, a professor of art named Craig Hickman programmed painting software that his three-year-old son could use. Before long this program, Kid Pix, became a major hit. When you use Kid Pix you find that part of the thrill is discovering what each one of its tools does. While the pencil and the paintbrush work somewhat the way they’ve always done, the “Wacky Mixer,” for example, does not. You can use the mixer to tessellate, reverse, outline, displace, or fracture your image. Since the program contains dozens of other such choices, you tend to try them all. You discover that the more automated tools produce more exciting effects than those that rely on your own handiwork. A subtle shift occurs, for before you know it you are busy exploring what the computer can do for you rather than concentrating on what you can do with it. How fitting, then, that what Kid Pix does best for you is to destroy your pictures! The eraser tool can delete your work with many special effects, the most popular being a stick of dynamite that blows your designs to kingdom come.

You may complain that I have judged this most admirable of children’s programs too harshly. Perhaps you will agree that what gives us pleasure in Kid Pix is the process – not the product – of painting: the finished picture is nowhere near as interesting as the act of painting it. Here we may find a connection to children’s art of many sorts, all entailing performance.

Turning from Kid Pix to crayons, we should ignore for the moment the children’s scribbles proudly mounted on the refrigerator door, and look instead at a boy on the floor poised over a large sheet of white paper. He mutters comments and sound effects as he builds a castle with crayon wax. He leans back to admire his parapets for a moment, only to crouch down to place a prisoner in a tower. Now, imagining an escape, he draws a secret trapdoor, and then an almost invisible sash that dangles into the void. He scribbles in a guard at ground level, and he shouts the guard’s alert… And as we continue to watch, he overlays his picture with the successive happenings of this improvised story, to the point that had we not been watching (and eavesdropping) we could make no sense of it at all. There is no playback device for a picture, and in missing the performance we miss the meaning.

“Playback device” gives away what I have in mind: programs that allow children to play freely with digital brushes or puppets, at the same time storing the sequence of such play. Afterwards, a child could annotate, recite, or edit her performances in any way she pleases, and in this form share them with an audience. Inner worlds that usually evaporate when children finish playing could be saved and re-entered not only by themselves, but by others – and not only by children, but by adults. This would open up the creative process, ushering in a generation of software suitable for generations of children.

August 1994